A number of authors across philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience have argued that consciousness always involves self-consciousness: to be conscious at all, you have to be conscious of yourself in some way. However, many find this claim implausible. In particular, it is seemingly undermined by reports of "selfless" episodes – conscious episodes lacking self-consciousness – induced by psychopathology, psychoactive drugs, or meditation.
In turn, the reliability of these reports has been called into question on the basis of the following assumption: a subject can only accurately recall and report a past experience as one she lived through if she was self-conscious when she lived through it. This assumption underlies the Memory Challenge, according to which retrospective reports of selfless conscious episodes are partly or wholly inaccurate. If this is right, then there is no reliable evidence for the existence of selfless episodes.
In a new paper published in Erkenntnis, we push back against the Memory Challenge with a conditional argument: if selfless conscious episodes do occur, then it should be possible for subjects who live through such states to (accurately) recall and report them as conscious episodes they lived through. We start by reviewing recent research on episodic memory. The prevalence of false memories and memory errors casts doubt on the claim that memory is a purely preservative process that consists in storing and retrieving information about past conscious episodes.
On an alternative view, episodic memory is an active process involving a generative component that bears some similarity to imagination. In line with this idea, we endorse a general account of episodic memory, according to which episodic recall involves both retrieving the gist of a past episode from a memory trace, and enriching it with semantic information to construct a coherent episodic scenario.
Given this account, we ought to carefully distinguish between two kinds of self-representation that may be involved in episodic remembering. One pertains to the first-order content of the recalled episode. For example, you may explicitly remember thinking about yourself. The other pertains to the second-order content of the memory. Episodic memories are typically presented as belonging to one's personal past. They also typically come with a sense of ownership: they are presented in originating in one's own experience. We argue that first-order self-representation in episodic memory is normally retrieved from the memory trace, while second-order self-representation is added to the constructed scenario by enrichment with semantic information.
This helps us make sense of memories of selfless episodes. At face value, they are simply memories of episodes lacking first-order self-representation. They are reported as memories of the subject's own experience merely because they are enriched with (accurate) second-order self-representation. Indeed, there is no good reason to think that the gist of a conscious episode lacking self-representation could not be stored in a memory trace, then retrieved and enriched in an episodic scenario presented as involving the subject and originating in her experiential past.
Consequently, the Memory Challenge ultimately fails to undermine the evidential strength of reports of selfless conscious episodes against the claim that all conscious episodes involve self-consciousness. Investigating the psychological basis for such reports is a fruitful endeavor for future research on self-consciousness and its disruption in various conditions.